"Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice."
Handling Division in the Church
William Cowper once wrote a hymn that began with the words:
"God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;"
And how often that appears to be the case! You look at a situation that looks anything but promising and it turns out that the Lord uses it to further his own plan and purposes. There are a couple of verses hidden away towards the end of Isaiah’s long prophecy that comment helpfully on this:
Is.55:8-9 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."
The thing is that we think we can understand what is going on but all too often we look on the surface, at appearances, and quickly jump to wrong conclusions.
We read, for example, the story of how Joseph’s brothers cruelly sold him into slavery and how for years he had a rough time of things and we think he’s been abandoned by God. But when we read on we discover that God had his plan all along and Joseph was the lynchpin of it. His brothers had plotted evil against him but God had meant it for good.
Then there was a High Priest called Caiaphas who found himself in a difficult position. You see there was this young preacher who was causing such a stir that Caiaphas feared it would cause the occupying Roman army to crack down on Jewish freedoms and that would be a catastrophe for the nation. What was he to do? He came to the conclusion that the best thing would be to get shot of the Nazarene after all he argued:
"don’t you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish?"
Caiaphas decided to work to ensure that Jesus crucified – after all what could a dead man do – and in doing so he unwittingly forwarded God’s purpose of making his Son the Saviour of the World.
Just a couple of examples but countless more could be cited demonstrating the same truth – outward appearances can be deceptive when God is at work to achieve his purposes. And this ought to encourage us to lean not upon our own understanding but to trust that our Lord knows what he is doing!
And so to Paul under arrest in Rome... surely gospel progress would be hindered by all these restrictions being placed upon the apostle to the Gentiles. Well, we thought about this last week and we saw that the reality was completely the opposite. Paul’s imprisonment didn’t hinder the progress of the gospel but rather it had opened up new spheres of service for him and encouraged other believers to be more courageous and enthusiastic about proclaiming the gospel themselves.
What encouraging and heartening news this was for Paul to communicate to the church in Philippi! Wasn’t this wonderful! I bet the congregation in Philippi was looking forward to hearing more of this... And then Paul dropped his little bombshell. Yes, the gospel was making progress, Christ was being proclaimed but things were far from being well in the church in Rome, in fact there was some serious division there.
We might have expected Paul to continue in his positive vein passing in silence over the more discordant notes but he didn’t. For a moment he paused to allude briefly to the problems in the Roman church.
There is a lesson for us in this even before we take a closer look at what Paul actually went on to say. The gospel can and does make progress even when problems exist in the church. We shouldn’t use this as a reason to justify the mistakes and failures that Christians make but it is encouraging nonetheless to know that the progress of the gospel isn’t dependent upon perfection in the church - it is instead dependent on the One who promised that he would build his church!
As we consider our passage this morning we’re going to think about division in the church. At the same time we’re also going to think about the importance of our motives because motives were a, if not the, major factor in causing the division to which Paul referred. And we’re going to finish by taking a look at Paul’s example to see just how he behaved so that we might know what to do if we are ever faced with potential division.
A Divided Church
The gospel was spreading and making progress but, Paul now tells us, it was being advanced in two different ways by two different groups and the contrast between them was an important one. At the root of it all there seems to have been a bit of a personality issue. There are other examples of such issues in the NT and there have been many, many more in the subsequent history of the church as well. In Rome the matter had got somewhat out of control and this had ended up with some at least acting in a most unchristian manner.
The essence of the problem was one that was not immediately visible to the naked eye because it concerned the motives that lay behind the actions of those involved. Motives abide in the heart and while the true state of the heart remains hidden from other men and women those motives are not hidden from God. The Bible informs us that God prefers to look on the heart rather than upon the outward appearance of things. As we think a little about the motives that dominated the lives of these Christians in Rome let’s not forget to reflect upon the motives that fill our own hearts and drive our actions. We are strongly advised by the writer of Proverbs to do just that:
Prov.4:23 "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life."
So what was the problem in Rome? What caused the division to which I’ve been referring?
Well, on the one hand there were those who were sympathetic to the apostle. They knew his was under arrest and they also knew why. Paul was in prison and these brothers recognised that God’s hand was in it all. They understood that Paul had been put in prison for the defence of the gospel and that meant both for what he had been doing before being arrested and for what God wanted him to do now that he had been arrested and was confined under the responsibility of the Praetorian Guard.
This group had heard of Paul’s success in making the gospel known amongst the soldiers and they knew too that the wider community had come to understand why Paul had been taken into custody – he was there because of Christ. Now, these believers weren’t without their own faults but they were now emboldened to preach more openly than ever before. They preached the good news out of good will and because of the love they had for Paul. They knew that Paul would be thrilled to hear that the gospel was continuing to spread.
This group had a genuine understanding of what Paul’s divinely appointed ministry was all about and, with hearts full of good motives, they preached Christ, that is they spoke about the Lord Jesus and what he had come to achieve and what he offered to sinners who would put their faith and trust in him. They preached Christ in a genuine, open and truthful way. These were commendable Christian folk indeed!
Sadly, though, this wasn’t the only group Paul knew about in Rome. There was another group and their motives were very different indeed. Yes, they too "preached Christ" and their message would have been fundamentally the same as that of the first group. However they preached in a totally different spirit and with a very different agenda. They weren’t filled with the uniquely noble desires of honouring Christ and doing good to others they also wanted their preaching to cause harm for the apostle. Such a motive was actually at variance with the message of the very Christ they proclaimed.
If the one group acted genuinely out of love and goodwill the same can’t be said of the second. They were characterised by envy and rivalry and they pursued their selfish ambitions as they went about their business. What was perhaps worse was the fact that they had something of a hidden agenda which led to their preaching being something of a pretence, a sham: while purporting to do others good by preaching Christ they were really hoping to exacerbate Paul’s situation and make his captive status more uncomfortable and more unpleasant for him. If the chains on Paul’s wrists caused him wounds these believers hoped by their behaviour to rub a bit of salt into them.
It’s hard to imagine isn’t it? How divided the church was in Rome! Maybe not on the surface but underneath this was a significant issue. And how awful that some believers could act like that! You see it is possible to do the right thing – in this case to preach Christ – for entirely the wrong reasons. How deceptive appearances can be at times!
It is perhaps tempting to imagine that those acting in this way were not genuine believers at all but that simply wasn’t the case. We can’t simply say that there were true believers on the one hand and false believers because Paul recognised both groups are being comprised of brothers. They were both preaching Christ and doing so in such a way that enabled Paul to rejoice! And Paul could not and would not have rejoiced in the proclamation of a false gospel or of a distorted Christ. Do you remember how he vigorously invoked a curse on those who preached a false Christ among the Galatians?
Gal.1:9 "If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed."
In fact Paul could hardly have opposed such folk more seriously for he also wrote of them saying:
Gal.5:12 "I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!"
No, Paul would never have rejoiced in the proclamation of a false, distorted Christ and yet he rejoiced that Christ was being proclaimed. What are we to make of this?
Quite simply there were some Christians in Rome who were behaving in ways that are totally unworthy of the Christian. Paul, as we have already seen, wrote that some acted out of envy, rivalry and selfish ambition and these are words that are nearly always used in very negative contexts. In fact you’re most likely to find these words in the NT in one or other of the lists of vices that are to be condemned and avoided by Christian people. Envy, rivalry, strife, selfish ambition – these things are works of the flesh, they don’t form part of the fruit of the Spirit and yet here was a group of believers displaying them. This was simply wrong.
The most charitable way of looking at this group is to see them as immature but we don’t know enough about them to say even that much. No Christian should function like these folk were and yet Christians can, and often do, do things they shouldn’t. Here is a reminder to us that the church is not perfect. And lest we sit back and go into a tut-tut mode lets us remember what Paul once wrote to the Christians in Corinth:
1Cor.10:12 "let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall."
Why Didn’t Paul Hush it All Up?
Paul could of course have kept quiet about this division in the church in Rome but he was open and honest with the Philippians and he told them briefly of some of the issues that were confronting the church there. And I want to suggest to you that he did so for a number of reasons. I think he was preparing the ground for what he was intending to write later on in his letter.
Paul knew that the sins of envy, rivalry and selfish ambition were not the monopoly of the church in Rome. So he would write to warn the Philippians to be on the look-out for the emerging of such sins in their own congregation so that they could nip them in the bud before they become too threatening. With the description of the problems in Rome fresh in their minds the Philippians would more readily understand Paul’s call to in ch.2:3 to "do nothing out of rivalry". By writing about the problems being experienced by the church in Rome Paul was able to put down some early markers for the Philippians.
And the truth was that some problems had already developed in the church in Philippi too. There were two ladies, good Christian ladies, who seemed to have fallen out with each other and Paul would have to address that matter head on.
Now when serious problems do surface in a congregation it is possible for the members to begin to call everything into question and to draw unwarranted conclusions. The presence of problems in a church is not evidence however that everything is wrong, it is not evidence that the gospel is valueless of ineffective. Problems in a church are an indication that God still has work to do but Paul has told us that he who had begun a good work would complete it, so the Christian has no cause to lose heart. This is of course not to be taken as an excuse or a reason to defend sub-Christian behaviour; that must be dealt with. Until God has finished his work his people remain capable of many serious gaffes.
A further reason for not glossing over the problem in Rome was so that Paul might demonstrate how such divisions might be dealt with.
Here Paul’s example is very helpful and to that we now turn.
Dealing with Division Among Christians
I wonder if it has struck you how little detail Paul has actually given us about the situation in Rome?
There are so many things we just don’t know, aren’t there?
We don’t know who these individuals were. We don’t know why they appear to have had it in for the apostle Paul. We don’t know just how it affected the way they preached nor how they imagined they might make matters worse for Paul in his confinement. We don’t know how many of them there were. We don’t know whether they were leaders of the congregation or young immature believers.
Do you know something? If there was a similar problem in a church that we knew about the chances are that we would know all those sorts of thing in detail. Why? Because we love to gossip and to pass on information that we would probably be better off not even knowing ourselves! How insidious gossip can be, how mischievous! We know this so, to get round the difficulty, we lower our voices and quietly pass on our information and suggest we’re only sharing for prayer purposes and then proceed to share every detail we know.
Now there is a place for openness and honesty but there is also a time when it is far, far better to keep matters to a strict minimum. And when the issue relates to something as difficult as assessing another person’s motives we are surely wise to err on the side of caution.
The first thing that Paul’s example sets before us is the need to avoid going into too much detail.
We’re not to imagine that Paul spoke in order to leave the Philippians desperately and insatiably curious as to what the complete story was. He told them enough of what they needed to know in order that he might help them and prepare them for what they needed to do about their own situation.
You see the more the specifics of a situation are described to us the easier it usually is for us to distance ourselves from it and consequently to sit in judgment upon those who are involved. The more we know the specifics of another situation the easier it becomes for us to say that we’re not like that, we’re not like them.
Paul was going to give advice to the Philippians but if they were already convinced that they were somehow not at risk because they weren’t exactly like "those Romans" then they wouldn’t hear clearly what it was that Paul wanted to say to them. If we become adept at sucking in all the details about others and their problems and end up regularly sitting in judgment over them then we will likely find it hard to listen when the Lord would speak to us of our shortcomings and we would fail to heed his gracious warnings.
So the first thing to notice about coping with divisions is to learn a certain reticence, a certain restraint, with regard to listening to and passing on of detailed information.
If Paul’s example begins with a reluctance to share unnecessary information it does not end there. Paul makes a point of focusing upon the essentials. And what are those essentials? Well, it obviously didn’t include a list of complaints on his part as he tried to defend himself against the hostility of those who were trying to make life difficult for him. Paul gave no explanation as to why others didn’t like him instead he focused upon the most important thing – the preaching of Christ. As Paul reports the situation that is what he wants to stay with. Some preach Christ from good motives and others with decidedly mixed motives but what takes precedence for Paul is that Christ is proclaimed.
How focused are you upon this essential matter? Is the preaching of Christ the most important thing for you?
Yes, I’m sure Paul would have preferred all to preach Christ out of love and good will, openly and honestly without any pretence but what was important was that Christ was preached. And Paul would rejoice in that!
But no-one who has ever proclaimed Christ or preached Christ, be it in a formal setting of a meeting or in the informal setting of a private conversation, has ever done so perfectly. Every Christian has his or her own foibles and weaknesses. None of us has yet reached a stage of sinless perfection - Paul himself would write later in this letter stating that he hadn’t yet arrived but was still pressing on. But we can proclaim Christ and we can and should rejoice when we hear of Christ being proclaimed by others.
Do you rejoice in that way?
Do you rejoice in our church when you hear Christ being preached? Do you rejoice when you hear of other members of the church sharing their faith with a friend and Christ is proclaimed to them? Do you rejoice when Christians you don’t particularly like preach Christ and perhaps have more success than you and your friends are having?
We don’t have to agree with everything others may do or think but as long as they are preaching Christ we should be able to rejoice. I understand the expression "preaching Christ" to mean preaching the Christ revealed in the Scriptures and not some other "Christ", the fruit of human imagination. We can’t rejoice in the proclamation of a false Christ in whatever form that might take but when the living Christ of the Bible, the Incarnate Son of God, the Perfect man, the pure and holy sacrificial substitute, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the one who was dead and is now alive again, he who has gone to prepare a place for his people, the One who is coming on the clouds of heaven – when this One is preached we are to rejoice for this is the heart of the matter.
May it indeed be the case that this Christ be preached clearly and may the Spirit anoint such preaching to the glory of God and to the salvation of sinners!
And to God be the glory.